Leo Sarkisian, the creator of Music Time in Africa , VOA’s oldest English language music program, signed out of work for the last time Friday, ending a career that spanned more than half a century and took him to every country on the African continent.
Sarkisian used his travels to hunt down and record music of every stripe and genre. His recordings, including some 10,000 reel-to-reel tapes, are now part of the Leo Sarkisian Library of African Music, and make up “one of the most valuable and sought-after collections in the world,” according to VOA Director David Ensor.
“Leo is a VOA treasure. His life’s work, recording and cataloguing, and most importantly, popularizing African music, are just a part of what makes him so special,” Ensor said. “What many people don’t know is that he spent decades traveling as a VOA goodwill ambassador, visiting countries that most American’s knew nothing about, learning about their music and sharing it with his radio audience.”
Sarkisian, who was recruited by legendary broadcaster and then USIA Chief Edward R. Murrow in the early 1960s, says he met with presidents, top officials and ordinary people on his travels, and was always warmly received.
“In many places, where they only had an ambassador and one PAO (Public Affairs Officer), the people had already arranged television coverage, lectures at the university, it was unbelievable the reception I got.” Sarkisian says he tried to visit every radio station he could. At one station in Bangui, Central African Republic, he says the owner looked at him and said, “You mean you came all this way just to visit us?” It meant so much to them, Sarkisian said.
In addition to his vast music collection, which is housed at VOA, and is now being digitized by the University of Michigan’s African studies department, Sarkisian is also recognized as an accomplished artist, whose drawings have been displayed throughout Africa and Europe.
Sarkisian and his wife, Mary, who often accompanied him on his adventures and helped answer the stacks of letters sent by adoring fans, told The Washington Post that he plans to do more painting now that he is retired.
Heather Maxwell , who is now the host and producer of VOA’s Music Time in Africa , spent part of Sarkisian’s last day in the music library with him, looking back on a lifetime of memories and a pile of listener mail. “I just never thought I would be taking up the reins for him,” she said. “It’s really an honor.”
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